According to those who track book club statistics, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio garnered renewed interest in mid-2020. And if you’re familiar with the book, you know exactly why; its topical relevance would be impossible to miss.
For those who aren’t familiar with the book, it’s a collection of 100 short tales as told by a fictional cast of ten upper-class young Florentines (7 women, 3 men) over the course of ten days. They had fled the city of Florence during the Black Plague epidemic of 1348 in order to establish some “social distance” from their fellow citizens.
Right. Fast forward to 2020, when most of us found ourselves in the same situation. Our normal lives disrupted, we struggled to find intellectual stimulation. Or even a reason to change out of our pajamas.
But in 14th Century Florence they couldn’t binge-watch the latest Netflix series, so they passed the time eating, drinking, and flirting while taking turns narrating naughty tales to each other, competing to see who was the best storyteller.
As for myself, I burned through the full library of Netflix (and Prime, and HBO) fairly quickly. At a loss for distraction, I recovered a short story of my own that I had started several years ago.
Well, I say “story of my own,” but in fact I had “borrowed” it from the aforementioned Boccaccio. I won’t quite say “plagiarized” because none other than Shakespeare himself has plagiarized—I mean, borrowed from—Boccaccio for his famous play, All’s Well That Ends Well.
Furthermore, the exact tale that gave me inspiration was also the basis of John Keats’ narrative poem Isabella, or The Pot of Basil. The original Boccaccio title was Lisabetta da Messina, occurring as the fifth story on the fourth day, and told by the character Filomena.
Lisabetta is one of the most popular of the 100 stories in the collection, and my personal favorite. Most of the ribald tales of The Decameron are pure farce and quite hilarious, even by modern standards of humor. (The common theme being that love is a powerful force that can't be stopped. It annihilates all reason and common sense, often with comical results... at least for those who are observing rather than participating.)
But this particular yarn has a “campfire ghost story” feel to it, like something that Stephen King might have written if he had been living in 14th century Florence.
At first, I thought of translating the story literally, only changing the language from Italian to English, while expanding on the narrative and dialogue (in its original form, it’s only about 3 pages long—see below).
But for some reason, that didn’t work for me—it felt too much like plagiarizing.
So while I kept the plot and the characters essentially the same, I shifted the timeline forward to the late 20th century, moved the location from Sicily to South Florida, and replaced the basil plant with a lemon tree. The name of the protagonist was only altered slightly, while her lover’s name remains unchanged.
One problem I had while writing it was that I couldn’t get past the narrator-centric voice of the piece. I wanted more dialogue between the characters and more real-time action, like any modern day storyteller is instructed to do by his or her professors of creative writing. (“Show, don’t tell.”)
But try as I might, the “campfire ghost story” mood just wouldn’t leave me alone. Boccaccio’s voice sounded better for this type of tale. So eventually I stopped fighting him for control of his own story, and left it in the same narrative style as he had originally written it.
However, with all apologies to Boccaccio, the “only” thing I really changed was the ending. Yes, that’s a lot, but I felt like Boccaccio left us hanging, and I really wanted more resolution—and maybe even a little revenge—for the protagonists. Call it my American/Hollywood indoctrination, but I needed a good vendetta story!
SPOILER ALERT! Here below I’ve included the original story in (Olde) English, for any students of literature who want to critique it.
Original Story, in English (click here to open)
Liz and the Lemon Tree
by Rick Zullo (inspired by G. Boccaccio)
Unincorporated Okeechobee County — 1991
People disappear all the time in these parts—nothin’ too unusual ‘bout that, really. Our little town, if you can even call it that, straddles the border between civilization and the last untamed wilderness in the Eastern United States. Queer stuff has a way of findin’ us out here.
Even so, it did raise a few eyebrows last winter when the particular folks gone missin’ were three of the richest rednecks that ever raised hell in Okeechobee County. More puzzlin’ still when you consider the total lack of evidence. It’s like they never even existed.
Well, there’s been lots of speculation, and I don’t claim to be privileged to every lil’ detail—but I’m more than happy to tell y’all what I do know...
Them three Guthrie brothers, each a real sonofabitch in his own special way. Stanley was the youngest, an odd sort of pervert, always studying a kinky porno magazine like it was The National Geographic or somethin’.
His brother Rory was the type of kid that went from pullin’ the wings off dragonflies to shovin’ firecrackers down the throats of amphibians, and then giggling quietly to himself while he waited for them to explode.
The oldest one was Roger, who was just plain stone-faced and mean; hardly ever showed any emotion, but when he did, it was always a simmerin’ anger.
After the passin’ of their daddy ‘bout three years back, these boys suddenly found themselves much too wealthy for their own damn good, equal partners in the largest citrus empire in all of South Florida. Nobody knows for sure exactly how much money their company shares were worth, but let’s just say it was more than those dimwits were able to count.
Yes sir, that Guthrie family had made a cozy little fortune off the backs of them illegal immigrants—Cubans, Mexcians, Colombians. To hear them tell it, they were creating jobs and stimulating the local economy, while the thieves in Washington and Tallahassee kept on takin’ more and more money out of a workin’ man’s pocket.
Well, I’m not so sure they were as “phil-an-thropic” as all that—never once heard them say a kind word ‘bout any of their employees. But one thing’s for sure: that family’s got a heap of cash, and only one of them left to spend it.
Ya see, shortly after their mama passed—God rest her soul—a petite little blonde girl, ten years-old, showed up at the dinner table one night. Their father introduced her as Lizzie, their baby sister.
Now, the boys were plenty old enough at the time to realize that this little muffin wasn’t baked in the same oven as them. Still, their daddy had told them to treat her kindly, like one of the family. And so they did, right up ‘til the day the old man died.
Liz was only seventeen at the time of her daddy’s passing, but she’d already seen a good bit. No sir, life hadn’t been too easy on her.
Her own mama was said to have been a woman of questionable reputation; somewhere between an amateur prostitute and a professional girlfriend—which didn’t do much to endear little Lizzie to her half-brothers, you can be sure of that.
She was a sharp little missy, though, and plenty mindful of how her newly acquainted siblings felt about the situation. But she did her best to play the sweet little sister anyway, even when they treated her like the only mule on a thoroughbred ranch.
Over the years that followed, Liz and her brothers came to a sort of unspoken truce, and managed to leave each other well enough alone.
Their daddy’s last will and testament had clearly stated that the boys were to take care of their little sissy up until her twenty-first birthday, after which time she was to become an equal partner in the family’s citrus business. Rest assured, the Guthrie brothers had a flock of lawyers working on that annoyin’ little detail from the get-go.
After finishing high school, Liz took up a job answering the phones at the office of the citrus farm, where her brothers reluctantly paid her minimum wage. She was good on the phone—chatty, friendly. She had a knack for speakin’, knowing how to put on the twang for the farmer-types, then five minutes later she’d fancy it up for an important businessman or local politician.
Furthermore, her four years of high school Spanish put her in good graces with the migrant workers, most of whom couldn’t squeak out a complete sentence of proper English if their lives depended on it.
One of those workers, however, did speak good English. His name was Lorenzo, a handsome young Cuban; dark-skinned, soft spoken and gentle, but with a thick-limbed, solid body that had been carved out by a life of manual labor. His best feature was his big smile, which always seemed to reflect the Florida sunshine no matter which way he turned his head.
He was only 26 years old, but his English skills and hard workin’ got him the job as foreman and right-hand man for the Guthrie brothers. In fact, he pretty much ran the day-to-day business, freein’ up the brothers’ time for more important tasks like hunting, fishing, watching NASCAR, and drinkin’ beer.
They treated Lorenzo with a wee-bit more respect than the other immigrants, but were always quick to put him in his place and remind him how swiftly the INS could have his spic ass kicked all the way back to Cuba. This, of course, was a bluff, but it didn’t do much to nurture warm feelings between the two parties.
While the money that they paid Lorenzo was barely enough to buy groceries, they did give him a free place to stay. They had thrown together a make-shift apartment in one corner of the warehouse and equipped it with a sagging bed, a metal filing cabinet that served as a dresser, a tiny fridge, and a folding table with two moldy chairs. There was a bathroom, too, with a toilet and sink, but no shower.
The pretense was that this apartment was a “bonus” to supplement his salary. But in reality it was a way for the Guthrie brothers to keep their foreman on the job 24 hours a day.
Whenever a situation came up at night or on a weekend, they’d call up Lorenzo and tell him to handle it so that they could keep on fishin’ and pilin’ up empty beer cans on the floor of their boat. Way they saw it, important gentlemen like themselves shouldn’t be bothered with the petty details of runnin’ a business after hours. Annoyin’ shit like that should be handled by lesser individuals like Lorenzo.
Round ‘bout this time, Liz was approaching her twentieth birthday—she’d gained a bit of weight in just the right places, and was turning heads all over town.
This fact had not escaped Lorenzo’s attention, either. His tiny apartment was only about twenty paces from the office trailer where Lizzie worked every day.
It began with a few shy glances, then gradually developed into a sweet friendship. Lizzie would bring him lunch or they’d go for a walk in the orange groves at sunset.
Soon though, it progressed beyond just friendship, and Lorenzo, who was known to be quite the ladies’ man, gave up all his other affairs, having been taken so completely by the beauty and charm of the young Guthrie girl. They both were well aware of the taboo, but perhaps this only added to their excitement.
Wasn’t long ‘til the couple was spending as much time together as possible, always being careful to keep things out of the public eye.
The only real concern was that the brothers would find out—as much as they relied on Lorenzo, he knew that the Guthrie boys would never accept him into their clan. Liz was aware of this, too, and did her best to hide her affections for Lorenzo from her siblings.
But the nature of young lovers is to believe that the rest of the world is as oblivious to them as they are to the rest of the world. Eventually their initial caution was replaced by recklessness.
One night after work, Liz was seen by her oldest brother Roger, as she was sneaking into Lorenzo’s apartment. He probably thought it merely odd at first, but then he waited around for a while to see when she’d come out. She never did.
This must have pissed Roger off a good bit, but being a man that always calculated his options to his greatest advantage, he said nothing. After waiting for his sister for almost two hours, he realized what was going on and drove home.
Can’t imagine that Roger slept a whole lot that night, trying to think of the right angle to play. He got up early the next morning, before first light, and drove over to the house shared by his two younger brothers. Over several quarts of strong coffee, the three boys put their feeble minds together.
“What? Lizzie’s givin’ it up for that dirty Mexican?” asked Stanley.
“He’s Cuban, you dumb-ass,” replied Rory.
“Oh, what the hell’s the difference? It’s just plain embarrassin’, our sister with that grease ball.”
Roger chimed in, “You two don’t get it. Yeah, it’s embarrassin’ as shit, but that ain’t the real problem. When she gets knocked up, then that ‘grease ball’ might just be our brother-in-law. And then, guess what? He won’t be our employee anymore…he’ll be our goddamn business partner.”
“Yeah, shit. Our daddy, God rest his soul, sure as hell wouldn’t have wanted that. No, sir.”
“So boys, that’s the problem. What we gonna do about it?” asked Roger.
It didn’t take long for them to come up with their answer. The “what” was obvious enough. The “how” was a bit trickier to work out.
It was a perfect Sunday, mid-January; the kind of bright sunny day when people praised Jesus for the privilege of living in the Great State of Florida. The wind was calm and the temperature was perfect for jeans and a T-shirt.
The Guthrie brothers had loaded up the pickup truck, stocked the cooler full of Budweiser, and attached the fishin’ boat to the trailer hitch for their usual Sunday afternoon on Lake Okeechobee. The only thing different from their routine was that this time they had invited a guest. Lorenzo.
The boys laughed and joked with Lorenzo, slappin’ him on the back and offering him beer after beer. They spent a fine day out on the lake, catching quite a few crappies and even a nice-sized bass in between their beer guzzlin’ and dirty joke tellin’.
Poor Lorenzo must have thought that their behavior didn’t quite square with his previous experiences, but being lovesick as he was, probably chose to ignore his suspicions.
Upon returning to shore, Roger and Rory made themselves busy by settin’ the boat back on the trailer while Stanley and Lorenzo stared out at the red sunset slowly melting into the giant lake.
Chugging down the last of his beer, Stanley belched loudly then excused himself to go take a piss behind a tree.
Lorenzo stayed put, his thoughts drifting toward Liz, knowing that she was probably waiting for him back at his apartment. Maybe she’d be under the covers already, reading one of her fancy books until he arrived.
Then Lorenzo heard a sound behind him; a twig snapping or maybe the cock of a rifle. He wasn’t sure, but didn’t turn around, instead letting his gaze wander up to the darkening horizon as he traced a flock of heron gliding low over the sawgrass. He must’ve thought how graceful they looked as they dipped and turned and flapped their wings in perfect unison.
A loud crack echoed across the lake. The last thing Lorenzo felt was the wet, mossy ground against his cheek.
Liz paced the tiny office trailer, ignored some phone calls and cut the others short. She strolled over to the Coke machine several times, drinking more soda than she was used to, just to pass by Lorenzo’s apartment. When the sugar and caffeine buzz crashed, Liz folded her arms across her desk and laid her head down, waiting.
She perked up when she heard a truck roll up in the driveway and park next to her trailer. When the door of the vehicle closed, she heard her brother Rory call out to Stanley, who must have been in the warehouse nearby.
“Hey Stan, what time you figure ‘Zo be gettin’ back from Miami? He needs to get that tractor fixed ASAP.”
“No idea, brother. Should’ve been back by now. Maybe he got himself a nice little señorita down there keepin’ him busy. Heh, heh.”
Liz leapt up from her desk and popped outside to where her two brothers were, just as Roger strolled up making it an official family reunion.
Liz asked Rory, “What’s this about Lorenzo going to Miami?”
Roger jumped in, “None of your goddamn business. What the hell you care, anyway?”
“I was just wondering, that’s all,” she replied, then quickly added, “I was gonna ask him to have a look at the A/C unit in the trailer. It’s been acting up.”
“Is that right?” Roger asked. “Well, you let me worry ‘bout that, and you worry ‘bout your work. I’ve had a few customers complaining ‘bout your attitude lately. No more damn questions about Lorenzo, is that clear?” He didn’t wait for an answer, he just turned and walked away.
Liz looked at her other two brothers, perhaps hoping for an explanation. All she got from them were the same stupid expressions that they always had on their faces.
A week went by, one day blurring into another. Liz went to work every morning, but spoke to nobody. Her anxiety swelled, twisted her every thought, distorted every random emotion; first sorrow, then anger, grief, and despair by turns.
Why had Lorenzo left and where had he gone? Sleep came in fits; nights of insomnia, and then she’d fall asleep at her desk in the afternoon. By Friday evening her body had at last given up completely. She laid down on her bed and descended into a deep, dark oblivion, paralyzed by fatigue.
It was then that Lorenzo finally came back to her, standing in her doorway, a bright yellow glow outlining his silhouette.
She bolted toward him, and then stopped short, taken back by the vacancy in his eyes. His clothes torn and ragged, his hair caked with dried mud, his skin dull and gray. But his smile—that beautiful smile—was exactly the same.
His gaze met hers as he began to speak, “Lizzie, listen, please—”
Liz overcame her initial shock and ran toward him again. But the faster she ran, the further he drifted away. Eventually she stopped, out of breath. She tried to call out to him, but her mouth wouldn’t move, no sounds came out.
But Lorenzo could hear the voice inside her head, he knew exactly what she was thinking, and so he replied to her silent pleas, and answered all her unspoken questions. He told her everything that had happened since the last time they had kissed goodbye.
Liz drove out to the place Lorenzo had described to her in the dream. A floating patch of swamp on the edge of Lake Okeechobee, thick with black mosquitoes, ten miles from the nearest paved road. When she turned off the engine, the grunting of unseen reptiles broke the stillness. Stepping down from the pickup truck, the humidity attached itself to her skin like a wet blanket. The air tasted like mildew.
Although she’d never been anywhere near that particular location in her life, so deep into the ‘Glades, she recognized it right away as if it were her own backyard. She walked directly to a spot of freshly turned earth, fell down to her knees, and clawed at the dirt with her bare hands.
She dug for a time—two minutes or perhaps two hours—until her fingers pressed gently against the smooth flesh of her slain lover.
She brushed away the dirt with care, being especially tender around his face, until at last Lorenzo was looking up at her with his warm brown eyes, as beautiful in death as in life.
She began to cry and didn’t stop until her tears soaked the ground around his corpse, and then the darkness of a moonless night concealed him once again.
Returning to the pickup, she retrieved a few items to help her complete the task: a brand-new camping lantern; her genuine Chinese silk bathrobe (a gift from her daddy); a large Talavera pot painted in bright hues; and an 18-inch machete sharpened to a razor’s edge.
With loving care, she cradled Lorenzo’s head in the crook of her left arm and then, caressing his throat with the machete, she tenderly severed his head from his body, being careful to make the cut as clean as possible. It required a bit of effort, especially when the blade got caught between two vertebrae, but she was pleased with the final result.
Wiping away the last of the dirt from his face, she kissed him on the mouth and stared into his eyes one last time before wrapping his head in the silk robe and placing it inside the Mexican pot. She took some of the loose soil from where she’d been digging and packed it on top to cover his head, then filled up the shallow grave around his headless body.
Collecting all of her things, she loaded up the truck and secured the pot into the passenger’s seat with the seatbelt firmly tightened for the bumpy ride back to town.
Once she arrived at her apartment above her brother’s garage, she hefted the pot upstairs and brought it into her bedroom. She retrieved a fresh, budding sprig from one of the lemon trees in the yard and pressed it firmly down into the damp soil.
Then she sat on the floor holding the pot between her legs, weeping all through the night, her tears completely drenching the dirt around Lorenzo’s head.
A few weeks went on and Liz spent every night embracing the cold ceramic pot, softly calling out for Lorenzo between sobs until she passed out from exhaustion.
Meanwhile, inside the pot, the lemon sprig had taken root, watered by her brackish tears.
One night she was awakened by a cold wind sneaking in between the cracked walls of the old apartment. In the course of just a few hours, the temperature outside had fallen almost twenty degrees.
She got up to fetch a flannel blanket from the closet by the front door. Upon returning to the bedroom, she saw Lorenzo sitting on the hardwood floor next to the pot where the little lemon tree had suddenly grown to over a foot high.
As she approached, she was struck by the strong smell of the newly budding citrus blossoms, filling the room with their clean fragrance.
The chill that evening had only been a preview of the vicious cold snap that was descending on South Florida. Every weatherman on the TV had warned of a hard freeze the following night—the bane of every citrus farmer. Only the grittiest would be able to protect their crops by tending fires in the groves all night, struggling to keep the frost off the leaves while taming the flames from getting too wild.
Normally, this would have been Lorenzo’s job. He’d organize the other field hands, taking shifts throughout the day and night for as long as the cold, damp air hung over their valuable trees.
However, since Lorenzo had disappeared, the job now fell back onto the Guthrie brothers themselves. Each one of them was softer and lazier than the next, but goddammit if they were gonna let a fortune in citrus crop rot on the branches right before their eyes.
Bitchin’ and moanin’ the whole time, they eventually got their asses in gear and managed to sort out a rotation system among the workers to keep the fires burning all night long.
By nightfall, the boys were completely worn out. They dragged some cots and blankets and a small electric heater into Lorenzo’s apartment in the corner of the warehouse and set up a temporary camp for the night.
Stanley went out to pick up some pizza and beer, and then the three of them chewed and gulped in relative silence until they’d had their fill. A heavy drowsiness came over each of them simultaneously, the combination of total exhaustion and full bellies. They hadn’t worked that hard since—well, ever, really.
Just about the time they were about to settle in for a few hours of much-needed sleep, a soft knock came at the door.
They probably thought it was one of their workers stopping by to give them an update. Or maybe the governor of Florida; or perhaps Mickey Mouse, or a space alien. Anyone but their insignificant little sister. But in fact, that’s exactly who it was.
“Hey boys, how y’all holdin’ up?”
“How the hell you think we’re holdin’ up? It’s colder than a witch’s tit out in them fields,” said Rory.
“Well, it seems like you’ll be plenty cozy in here, anyway. In fact, I was wondering if you’d mind if I brought my little lemon tree in for the night. I normally keep it out in the trailer, but like you said, it’s gonna be pretty cold and I don’t want to let the poor little thing freeze to death.”
“What the hell you talkin’ about? What lemon tree?” asked Roger.
Liz stepped to the side, picked up the Mexican pot, and with a great heave, swung it into the room and plopped it on the floor. By this time the tree was about three and a half feet high and full of bright yellow fruit, like tiny light bulbs all a-glowin’ at once.
“This one,” she replied.
Nobody said nothin’ for a moment, the three boys glancing back and forth between the little tree, Liz, and each other.
Finally Roger spoke, “What the hell do I care? I don’t give a shit, leave it here if you want. Just move it outta the way so Stanley don’t trip over the damn thing and break his neck.”
Liz slid the potted tree into a corner and then turned to look at her brothers. None of them even bothered to glance back at her, actin’ as if she’d already gone.
“OK, thanks boys. I’ll guess I’ll get going then.” She waited for a reply, but all she got was more silence from Roger and Rory, and a muffled burp from Stanley. She turned to leave, and started to close the door.
Then she turned back again to say, “Sweet dreams, y’all.”
So I guess that’s about all there is to tell. Goin’ on two years now and nobody has seen or heard from them Guthrie brothers ever since that night.There was an investigation, of course—the Feds even poked around for a while—but they never uncovered a single clue that might even hint at the whereabouts of those poor boys. It’s like they just disappeared into thin air. By now, most people assume the ‘Glades ate ‘em up, like they done to so many others.
As for Guthrie & Sons Citrus Growers Incorporated, it has never done better. Last year the company’s profits increased by almost 35 percent, and this year looks even more promising, thanks to the business savvy of the new C.E.O, Miss Elizabeth Guthrie.
And that lemon tree? It now stands proudly in front of the corporate headquarters, grown to over 17 feet tall. Folks are always sayin’ how handsome and sturdy it looks: the dark, thick trunk, the strong limbs, and hundreds of bright lemons, like a galaxy of yellow suns, smiling their brilliance upon all those who pass by.